Average differences between parties have grown from 15 points in 1994 to 36 points now.
Largest gaps on questions about helping the needy, racial discrimination
Differences by party are larger than those by race, age, education or gender
Democrats and Republicans today have drastically different views of what America should be and how it should work, and the gap is only growing.
A new report from the Pew Research Center finds that on basic questions about how people succeed in America, how the economy ought to work, what the government should do to provide a safety net and even on what types of neighborhoods are most desirable, Democrats and Republicans are increasingly taking opposing sides. On the whole, the researchers find, partisans are now further apart than they have been in more than 20 years of surveys.
Average differences by party are now dramatically larger than average differences by age, gender, race, religious beliefs or educational attainment, a shift that began in the 1990s and has accelerated in recent years.
Overall, across a battery of 10 measures of ideological views that researchers have studied since 1994, the gap between the share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents on one side and the share of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who feel the same way averages 36 percentage points. That’s more than double the 17-point average difference found 13 years ago, and up from 15 points in the first year of the study, 1994.
More Democrats than Republicans
Partisanship itself has shifted over time as well. In the first year of the survey, the share of Americans who identified as Democrats and Republicans was about even, with 30% calling themselves Republicans and 32% Democrats. Adding in those independents who say they lean toward one party or the other, there were 44% on each side.
Now, however, Democrats have an overall edge in party identification: 31% consider themselves Democrats, 25% Republican. The imbalance carries through even when party-leaning independents are added in. About half tilt toward the Democrats, four in 10 among the Republicans.
The Democratic edge in identification shows in the survey’s overall trends, several of which suggest a more liberal tilt to the nation’s views generally over the last two decades, even as divisions in opinion between parties have become amplified.
New attitudes on race, the poor
Among those questions with trends dating back to 1994, the sharpest partisan divides come on the poor and on racial discrimination, even as recent shifts overall suggest the country is taking a more left-leaning position on both. While the share of Americans who say “poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently” has climbed recently, and more now agree that “racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days,” there’s a chasm of roughly 50 points between where Democrats and Republicans stand on those topics. Nearly all of the overall change on those two questions is driven by shifts among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.
Likewise, there’s a 45-point gap between partisans on whether the government can afford to do much more to help the needy, even though overall trends suggest a recent increase in the share who favor more government help even if it means deep debt. And there are roughly 40-point gaps in perceptions of the best way to ensure peace and whether stricter environmental regulations are worth their trade-offs.
On immigration, an issue where a survey in 1994 found no meaningful difference between Democrats and Republicans, there now stands a 42-point gap between the parties on whether “immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.” That gap has more than doubled since 2010.
For the first time, majorities in both parties say that homosexuality should be accepted by society, but there’s still a nearly 30-point gap between partisans: 83% of Democrats say it ought to be accepted vs. 54% of Republicans.
Fewer have mixed ideological views
Taken together, this means that the share of Americans holding a mix of ideological views on these measures has shrunk in the last two decades, and the amount of overlap between the two parties across them is minimal. As the researchers write, “in 1994, 23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat; while 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 1% and 3%, respectively.”
Beyond these core 10 questions, the study branches out to find similar divides on matters of economic fairness, religion, gender discrimination, housing and even what makes America succeed.
Religion, economy and gender
Economic fairness was a central question in last year’s presidential campaign, and partisans are broadly split on those issues. Republicans are about evenly divided on whether the nation’s economy is generally fair to most Americans (50% say so, up from 45% in 2014) or unfairly favors powerful interests (46% think so, down from 51% in 2014). Democrats are more unified: 82% see the economy as unfairly tilted toward the powerful, up from 71% in 2014.
Democrats also increasingly reject the notion that belief in God is required for a person to be moral; 64% say that’s not necessary, up from about half in 2010. The partisan gap has widened over that time as Republican views hold steady, with 47% saying belief in God is not needed to be moral or have good values.
About three-quarters of Democrats say women still face significant obstacles that make it harder for them to get ahead than men, while two-thirds of Republicans say those obstacles are largely gone.
There is even disagreement on neighborhoods, US success and compromise
And on a matter as personal as housing, partisans can’t even agree on the type of neighborhood they’d like to live in, a divide perhaps driving polarization between urban and rural Americans. Among Republicans, 65% say they prefer to live in a community where houses are larger and further apart, with schools, stores and restaurants driving-distance away, while 61% of Democrats prefer smaller houses closer together, with amenities in walking distance.
More broadly, asked about whether America’s success is due more to its ability to change or more to its reliance on long-standing principles, Republicans and Democrats again stand on opposite sides. Almost seven in 10 Democrats (68%) say the ability to change has lifted America to success, while roughly six in 10 Republicans (61%) say it’s the nation’s commitment to its principles.
Perhaps least encouraging for the chances of a resolution among elected officials, partisans don’t even agree on whether their leaders should compromise. While 69% of Democrats say they prefer elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with, 52% of Republicans want elected officials who stick to their positions.
The Pew Research Center’s report is based on three telephone surveys conducted June 9 to 19, June 27 through July 9 and August 15 to 21. Most results among the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1.6 percentage points, with error margins of 2.5 points among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents and 2.3 points for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. Sampling error may vary depending on which surveys included the question being discussed. More information on the methodology is available in the full report.